Focus

"Kate's Collection"
© 2012 Whitney Reed

As a kid, I was mesmerized by my parents’ collection of National Geographics. The pictures of all those tribal people with neck rings and ear lobes that draped over their shoulders; strange animals in wet, neon green rain forests; snakes with their mouths open so wide you could see down inside their sickening hollow bodies, fangs dripping. These images haunted me. On the shelves, the magazines were harmless yellow-spined glossies pressed together above my dad’s record collection. I don’t know why my mom kept getting them, or perhaps they were inherited from my grandparents. I only know that on days when the maid told us we couldn’t walk on the freshly vacuumed carpet, I covered my island of a couch with these magazines, I opened them for the pictures, the horror, the worlds so colorful and so far away, so full of people, creatures, natural disasters, phenomenons.

Last week, I stayed in a home in Idaho (in the middle of a lake, in the middle of the mountains) that was filled with National Geographics, which led me to the website where you can find more beauty and more horror than any other one location on the internet: solar tornadoes; armless, legless amphibians. Did you know the Egyptians fed bird mummies? Some team of smart folks found mummified sacred scarlet ibis remains stuffed full of snails. Were you aware of this tiny spider whose brains are so big, they spill over into his legs? Speaking of spiders, what’s worse than those that jump? Have you seen this “King of Wasps,” they just found in Indonesia? Or this leaf-nosed bat they found over in Vietnam? Faces only a mother could love (assuming she has the same face).

In many ways, I believe that my draw to this kind of content stemmed largely from my boring, suburban, middle-class upbringing. I played sports, made mostly A’s and B’s in a private elementary school, snuck out a few times to drink beer in my later high school years, but, in general, I had a fairly unremarkable childhood–never did anything that warranted punishment more severe than perhaps a curbed curfew, never suffered any great personal tragedy or loss. I had the kind of safe, sweet childhood every parent wants for their child. What’s strange is that, despite the safety of the sheltered world I lived in, I was always afraid of something. And generally, my fears were unfounded in any real experience–they all pretty much came from National Geographic. The two biggest fears for me were snakes in my bed and Chinese Dragons that I imagined followed me into my parents’ room at night (when I was fleeing the snakes). In order to fall asleep, I would tell myself stories to push the scary out of my mind. I was always in these stories, and I generally set the stories against one of the other-worldly, awe-inspiring backgrounds from National Geographic. Like this, or this, or this.

Of course, what I’m most afraid of is myself. This is particularly inhibiting when it comes to my writing. Regarding my most recent writer’s block, a friend told me to “just talk and see what happens.” What happens when I write is I do one of two things: I admit I’m afraid or I pretend I’m not. Personal writing anyways. And as I get braver and braver, I have less to say. Because writing for me has generally been linked to fear. But now, for the first time in my life, I’m afraid of so little. It’s like my life has become one of those landcapes I linked to above–one of those worlds that is so large, so vast, so teeming with Awesome that all things I’ve been afraid of are diminished to the point of nearly-nonexistence–you can’t see a snake from the top of a waterfall. And so it becomes about what I see, it becomes about focus. My writing has become the stories I make from that focus (stay tuned).

So, as I was flipping through the National Geographic I brought to bed with me on my first night in Idaho, on the very same page as step-by-step directions on how to make a shrunken head (which sounds quite messy and very hot), I discovered this: That a blue whale’s heartbeat can be detected from two miles away. I love that there’s a heart on earth that big. So big in fact, that you and me both could crawl through the arteries and meet in the middle: in the middle of a heart in the middle of the ocean. So much blue.

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Three Days

© 2011 David Parker

The truth? I flew to Idaho and back in three days to do a little housekeeping 2,500 miles from home.

There were pugs who jumped on top of tables to lick the cream out of my coffee and a boat that pushed through a thin layer of ice on the surface of the lake. In the middle of the lake was an island. On top of the island was a house with lots of windows full of people who don’t care if anyone sees them throwing rocks. In fact, they encourage you to throw your own rocks, or at least stop carrying them around, but no one casts the first stone. There was music that glittered with the water reflecting mountains dusted with snow. A child entrusted with a knife sat criss-cross-applesauce on the counter to help cut vegetables for dinner. Self reliance. Some kind of pasta with rabbit. A toast to me. To us! A world of plastic sea creatures, a sprawling spiral, on the child’s bedroom floor. Confidence that it is beautiful because she made it. Smiles. Hugs that don’t pull away. Affirmation.

An Invitation: You give away your anger, your only power, and trade it for a new one, a truer one, on the promise of a net that will appear only if you jump. But you know the net is there because of how you began.

Can you remember? When you were just barely a speck, a few cells glued together by your own spirit, glowing and warm inside of your mother’s belly? She doesn’t even know you’re there. But you know. And you are perfect. And your life holds nothing but promise. The universe adores you. You are a beautiful, beloved secret. Your world is a soft place filled with the faint sounds of your mothers laughter and the ins-and-outs of her breath when she’s sleeping. You remember. That’s not a question. You began there. We all have that in common. And your spirit, your cellular glue, has a voice that isn’t afraid because it hasn’t learned fear yet. This is mine. Hello.

Thoughts on the Recursive. And Thank You.

© 2010 David Parker

Apparently, with no focal point (like a sun or a star or a you or a me), and with every intention to walk in a straight line, people walk around in circles. But, whether we’re blindfolded or just stumbling through the thick pitch of night, while we’re doing all of that wandering, we think we’re walking in a straight line. Without that external corrective, something inside of us, something about the way our atoms fit together, something about our biology, will not stay straight. I think part of what Souman’s study might reveal is that the human journey is not the shortest distance between two points. Rather, it seems to be the circle that connects one point back to itself.

This resonates with me. Maybe even validates my very existence. Because I do things, the same things, over and over, expecting different results. Someone once told me that this is the mark of insanity, but now I’m thinking maybe it’s the mark of humanity. Because don’t we all fall into patterns of behavior, patterns of thinking, rhythms of the everyday that are impossible to break? At least, they seem impossible to break. Especially without some kind of focal point like a person or a plan.

There are certain places in the geography of my life that I have been circling for the past five years–one of those places is the beginning of my teaching career. Another might be the day I met Ruthie. Another might be my divorce. Another might be the death of my grandfather. Another might be who I am in my family and who I am for real. And we all have these events, these anchors. Like the novelist Darin Strauss , who ran over a teenager when he was a just a teenager and wrote about it in fiction without knowing he was writing about it. (Now he’s finally written about it on purpose in a memoir called Half a Life.) And the only way that I’ve found to move past these events (or move through them the way one might move through a forest with trees thick as thieves and no light of day) is to write about them. With intention. The story of the event becomes my focal point, the external corrective to my inner recursive nature. And the sifting through those events reveals more and more of who I am. And that reveal is such a relief. Because for too long I’ve wandered around with these stories, these fragile stories, that I had to guard and protect and wear wrapped around my face. And now, here they are. Public and unapologetic: my stories.

And STORY is what carries us back to ourselves. Odysseus receives his ship home in return for a story. He tells a story in exchange for a ship that will (finally) take him back to where he came from, where his identity began. And I think it’s important that he tells his story. He doesn’t get the ship home in exchange for thinking of his story, but in exchange for sharing his story. And in telling my stories, I feel like I’m kind of giving myself back to myself. Owning not only the parts that are uncomfortable and awkward, but especially the parts that I’m proud of, the parts that were hard, the parts where I became. That ownership comes from sharing, and with each sharing, I’m peeling away pieces of my blindfold that hide me from my home.

All this is to say thank you. Thank you for reading and for watching me walk blindly in circles. I’d have no hope of home or a ship to carry me there were it not for your listening, allowing me to share. Just. Thank you.

‘Flicted with the Hubris

© 2010 David Parker

We started reading The Odyssey today in my AP class, and it’s got me thinking about quests and tests and challenges and nostos and hubris. Especially hubris, which is really a necessary flaw if you’re going to be an epic hero. I mean, being successful at anything requires a certain amount of ego, so if you’re going to be a fucking hero, I would imagine that you’d need maybe just a bit more hubris than the average guy. But in the end, the hubris is what brings the big boys to their knees. Well, hubris and fate.

The Odyssey was the first nail in my literary coffin. I read it my sophomore year of college in a Great Books class. It was the first time I realized that literature was about the human experience. It may have been the first time it was ever brought to my attention that there were certain universal aspects of being human. Except for the fact that Penelope never leaves the home, I love the narrative structure of The Odyssey: We begin with ourselves, our home; we go out into the world for a reason, on a quest; nothing goes the way we’d imagined it might; it takes a hell of a lot longer than we’d planned; we encounter challenges, battles, obstacles, monsters that test who-we-think-we-are; we eventually make it home (under strange sail and in exchange for a story); and nothing is as we remember it—not even ourselves. We thought we knew everything (hubris), we thought we were somebody (hubris), we bragged about how much of a somebody we thought we were (hubris), only to have our spirit sticks broken by the gods (fail). Just one big circle that begins and ends with me. And we arrive alone, without even our trusty hubris.

I think that’s why so many people experience success in their forties: it takes a long time and a lot of failing to get over the hubris. My twenties have been marked by arrogance and entitlement, and that too seems to be a universal piece of the human condition. Everyone is kind of an asshole in their twenties. We’re like Odysseus, messing over our accomplishments with our bragging. And my generation of braggarts is surely the worst yet as we proudly proclaim our cleverness from the tallest peaks of the Interwebs. Our status updates and tweets have a willingly captive audience and people like us. Social networking’s got us ‘flicted with the hubris. *heavy sigh* #kidsthesedays

Us, the Most Fleeting of All

© 2010 David Parker

I like to measure time with my milk’s expiration dates. I start to get excited about things in my life when I buy a carton of milk that expires after the date of the thing I’m looking forward to. Buying organic milk means that I get excited about things nearly a month before they’re going to happen. So, today, I went to buy some milk and noticed that the expiration date is September 5 (two days after my 28th birthday). It’s finally here: my magical year!

I’ve been looking forward to 28 for a long time. I hated my early twenties because I felt like no one took me seriously. Now, I’m kind of thankful that they didn’t. My mid-twenties were full of change, change, change, and more change. From 24-26, I kept saying that next year would be predictable, constant, undramatic, maybe even boring. And I’m thankful that didn’t happen either.

But 27 has been a gritty, grace-less year for me. There were no short-cuts. I was spared no criticism, I had to ask for help, I discovered that I really have very little control over anything beyond myself, I became disenchanted. Despite its grit, 27 did bring me the best summer of my life, which I deserved and enjoyed. And 27 brought me to today, which, if you don’t count the poor decision to eat a taco from the school cafeteria, was a pretty good day.

What follows is the poem that opens The Time Traveler’s Wife. I just love it. That’s all.

A Holy Hush

© 2010 David Parker

Everything leaves on a Sunday afternoon. It’s a slow death that begins just before I wake up and I spend the day savoring its wane. Wanting it even while I have it.

Because Sunday apologizes for the other six days of the week, and I accept. Because no one fights on Sunday. Because Sunday has no agenda and even the coffee cannot be rushed. Because I can keep my promises on a Sunday. Because Sunday wears like the pajamas I slept in all weekend. Because Sunday carries me around in its mouth like a puppy whose mother is bringing it back home. Because Sunday is when I change the sheets, fold fresh towels, wash the dishes in warm water.

Morning spends itself into the afternoon. I write patiently. He watches golf: polite applause, quiet voices. Ruthie takes a heavy nap, wakes up sweaty.

Tonight, I’ll make something from a roux–stir it slow to music that makes me feel overwhelmingly present in my own body. I’ll give Ruthie a bath, wrap her in a towel, press my lips against her shiny forehead, inhale her hairline. I’ll fold myself into bed, steel myself against dreading Monday, set the alarm. Close my eyes. Wait for sleep. Dream of pictures and words and time.

Coming Home

© 2010 David Parker

The past two days, I’ve been thinking a lot about home or nostos: where we come from, the place where our identity, our self begins. And tonight I was locked out of my house.

My mom’s in town and I decide it’d be nice to take Ruthie for a walk before bedtime. As soon as I hear the door’s heavy click behind me, I know I’ve left the keys four feet away on the table where I keep my keys. Damn it!

We try my landlord’s house down the street. No luck. We’re sweating. We try the window in the back. No luck. I pick up some garden shears and try to pry the window open. No luck. Finally, after 30 minutes of jimmy-ing the window on the front porch with the garden shears, we get in. My jeans and t-shirt are soaked all the way through. I’ve got blisters on the tips of my fingers from all of the jiggling and prying and pushing. Sound dirty? It was.

The most frustrating thing about being locked out of your house is you’re right there! RIGHT THERE! I could touch the fog from the air conditioner inside. I could see the damn keys through the front door. A pane of glass (how thick could that be?!) separated me from air-conditioning, a glass of water, our bedtime rituals. For some reason, the fact of such narrow proximity to the thing you want (especially when it’s something you are so familiar with and have such access to as your home) makes it maddeningly worse. And it’ll make you do crazy things like jiggle your window with garden shears until you work the latch through (it’s hard to explain).

The moment the window pops open, sweet relief pours through the dusty blinds and into my face: bought air. I climb through and let Ruthie and my mom in the front door. Simplest thing in the world: opening up my door for people to walk through. But it feels like a privilege, like a glorious, unique opportunity to walk into my own home. It feels so good because to open that door took so much work, so much sweat, with the possibility of not making it inside breathing hot on the back of my neck.

This past week has been pretty wretched for me personally speaking. It was one of those growing weeks. You know, where you become more of who you are? And it hurt like hell. Ask my bestie-best-best (A.) or ask David or ask anyone I worked with last week. I was ruh-dic-U-lussssss: anxious, weepy, depressed, sleepless, eatless, productive-less. I was on the threshold of myself. Jimmying the window, sweating, panting, gasping, cussing in front of my kid. Who-I-am taunted me through the window: all of my flaws glaring, glinting in the light. And then, all of a sudden, I’m inside. Just like that. And all of my flaws are still here, but I don’t mind. Because the thing that separated me from myself was insecurity and the work makes me forget what I hate and focus on what I love (or else, why would I be working so hard? And for what?). And after all that work, it’s so nice to be home. I hope I don’t lock myself out again.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. [T.S. Eliot]